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At 110 pages, this short novel in the Pushkin Press Collection is easily read in one session. Once grabbed by this powerful story I wasn’t going to put the book down until I’d finished it.
It concerns two brothers, who are only known as Big and Small appropriately to their comparative sizes. They are trapped at the bottom of a well which, like a mould for an iceberg, is wider under the surface the further it goes down. Their attempts to climb out fail; Big tries to throw Small up and over, this doesn’t work either. No-one hears their cries, despite the well being not far from the path. Will they ever get out, or will they die down there?
The days go on, they survive on worms, maggots and the earthy water from the sludge, portioned as per their size. Big keeps up his exercise regime. Small gets thin, sickly, and feverish but does recover a little. Big admonishes him for not eating.
‘You should eat even if you aren’t hungry.’
‘I’ll eat whem I’m hungry. I’ll drink when I’m thirsty. I’ll shit when I feel like shitting. Like dogs do.’
‘We aren’t dogs.’
‘In here we are. Worse than dogs.’
‘I think I’ve got rabies,’ he says.
‘No. You don’t have rabies yet.’
Small looks at him lovelessly, and asks:
‘Then what is this anger I can feel inside?’
‘You’re becoming a man,’ says Big.
The days go by and Small starts raving, making up tales including one that he was ‘the boy who stole Attila’s horse’. Big keeps up his regime. It gets harder and harder to find food, and all the time they have had a carrier of bread and cheese they were bringing back for their mother by their side – now beyond eating. The days carry on, Small gets ever-weaker. Big does his best to keep him alive…
This story is so Grimm – it is really a modern fairy tale. The boys’ struggle is told unsparingly in its detail in Sophie Hughes’ translation from the Spanish, from the taste of maggots to their physical state, yet it is not until near the end that we find out what happened. The brothers’ love for each other shines through, although there are some truly dark moments. On this level it is a compelling and touching tale with some flashes of humour just when you thought it was getting too black.
Where I had problems with it though was as an economic allegory of the state of Europe – that’ll teach me to read the publisher’s blurb just before I start a novel! Indeed the whole book is prefaced with a rather nasty epigraph from Margaret Thatcher (and another by Bertold Brecht). It wasn’t until I read John Self’s excellent review at Asylum that I was able to formulate my thoughts in this regard: The hole or void is pyramid shaped – the boys are at the bottom where they are literal and metaphorical have nots. It would take a miracle for them to reach the surface where they’d join the haves – but how do you climb out of a void? That’s my take, but I’m not sure I’d have got the economic allegory, even noting the quote from Thatch, if I hadn’t been pre-warned.
This strange little fable was definitely well worth reading for the writing is fine indeed. It’s Repila’s second novel; the first to be translated into English – it’ll be interesting to see what comes next. (7.5/10)
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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (Affiliate link):
The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (Pushkin Collection)by Iván Repila, 2013 trans Sophie Hughes 2015. Pushkin Press, paperback original, 110 pages.
I am born of a father. I split his head. For an instant that is as long as life itself we face one another and look each other in the eye. You are my father, I tell him with my eyes. My father. The person in front of me, standing in the blood on the floor, is my father. … He looks at me. At my shining armour. … Lean against him. His arms, which embrace me. We cry together. … I want nothing but to stand like this with my father and feel his warmth, listen to the beating of this heart. I have a father. I am my father’s daughter. These words ring through me like bells in that instant.
Then he screams.
His scream tears everything apart. I will ever again be close to him Never again rest my head against his chest. We have met and must immediately part.
In Greek myth, Athena, one of the Olympian goddesses, is born of no mother. Zeus has a headache and asks Hephaestus to split his head open. Out pops Athena – emerging fully formed in her armour. However, this is modern-day Sweden and the ground is covered with snow. The girl who is twelve sheds her armour and leaves the house – the neighbours take charge of her. They won’t believe that Conrad is her father. ‘Conrad is bit different, after all.’ She’s taken in by social services and given a name – Anna Bergstrom.
Then they find her a family. They already had two boys and had always wanted a girl. Sven and Birgitta live with their teenaged sons Urban and Ulf in a village of teetotallers and a Pentecostal church. ‘Most people were in both.’ Birgitta tries to involve Anna in family life, but Anna spends more time with Urban who persuades her to start speaking in tongues in church. Eventually she ends up being committed. All the time, she dreams of her father – she’d been sending secret letters to Conrad. She’s desperate to find him again and to run away with him…
This is a strange story. Naturally it requires a suspension of belief to believe that was how Anna is born, but the intensity of the telling is such that you’re readily absorbed into it. At 125 pages, it can easily be read in one session. I immersed myself without thinking too much until after I’d finished reading it.
When I had finished, I was full of questions. Why did the author called it The Helios Disaster. If you read the book and then Google ‘Helios Disaster’ you’ll find the answer to that question. I wanted to know too if Athena had anything to do with Helios in the Greek pantheon of gods? Helios was the Greek sun god, one of the Titans, he drives his chariot through the sky each day. Apart from them both appearing in Homer’s Odyssey, (and some computer games inspired by Homer!) along with practically all the other Greek gods, I couldn’t find anything to connect them in the myths of antiquity, the connection alluded to above appears to be of the author’s invention.
You’ve probably wondered if Linda Boström Knausgård is anything to do with Karl Ove Knausgård, the author of the autobiographical series of novels My Struggle. Yes, she is his wife. I did chuckle once during this novella – Birgitta takes Anna shopping in the city and Birgitta buys a book, ‘I’ll take one by our own … He’s just had a new one come out,‘ she said. A little in-joke to acknowledge the publishing phenomenon he has become.
The Pentecostal community is an odd one too. Glossolalia – or speaking in tongues – is an essential part of their way of worship. In the book of Acts in the Bible, it tells about the Apostles speaking in tongues, where each person there heard their own tongue being spoken – it’s rather the opposite with Anna … less being filled with the Holy Spirit, rather something altogether more ancient and Olympian.
No-one understands Anna, neither her foster family nor her doctors. She, our narrator, tries to fit in and sometimes, just fleetingly, she feels part of the family, but always she ultimately holds back thinking of her father.
The author is also a poet, and that shows in the short sentences and rhythm of the text, preserved in Rachel Willson-Broyles’ translation. I always enjoy reading modern retellings and reimaginings of old myths; The Helios Disaster is a challenging and thought-provoking example. (8.5/10)
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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate links), please click below:
The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård. Pub Feb 2015 by World Editions. Paperback original, 125 pages.
A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1 (Knausgaard) by Karl Ove Knausgård
As my daughter is spending the rest of Easter with her father, we did our Easter Eggs on Good Friday. I hid loads of little ones all around the house in places that the cats couldn’t get to, and that kept her occupied for ages finding them – with additional cryptic clues from me for those last few difficult ones – we do this every year, and the challenge is to think of some new places! Juliet also did a little treasure hunt with riddles for me, with some Malteaster bunnies and mini-eggs at the end of it – Yum, yum.
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Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 novel was hugely influential; it paved the way for Jackie Collins and all the other bonkbusters that followed. I’d been wanting to reach this book for ages, but knew nothing about its plot. I imagined that with that iconic cover (left) of a pair of luscious lips biting a pill, (even though my own copy is the rather lovely Barbara Hulanicki designed Virago hardback, right), it would be one long tale of bored women looking for love, and hooked on uppers and downers…
Well I was completely wrong. VotD is the perhaps more the spiritual heir of Peyton Place (reviewed here), relocated to the big smoke, than the Desperate Housewives of its day. I was pleasantly surprised by this, and also that its timeline starts so early.
The book opens just after the end of WWII. Anne Welles arrives in a sweltering New York City from New England looking for a job and a place to live. She’s young and beautiful, and everything falls into place for her. Within days she’s found a room, a job she loves at a theatrical agent, made a new friend in Neely the girl next door, and met Allen – a nice guy who takes her out.
Everything’s going so well for Anne – then someone turns up to throw a spanner in the works – Lyon Burke. Agency boss Henry’s younger partner returns from the war and Anne is instantly smitten badly. Then Allen proposes, and it turns out he’s a millionaire. They see Burke out one night at a club. He’s escorting a beautiful young woman, Jennifer North – an aspiring model and actress. She’s green with envy – what’s a girl to do?!?
Meanwhile, Anne’s neighbour, Neely has a career of her own to forge. At seventeen, she’s already a vaudeville veteran, and is up for a job in a new musical starring Henry’s long-term client, and former lover, Helen Lawson. Neely is fiercely ambitious and with Anne’s help gets into the musical and launches her career as a star in the making.
So we’ve met the three women, Anne, Neely and Jennifer, whose careers we’ll follow through their ups and downs into the 1960s. There’ll be career successes, meltdowns and comebacks; lovers, marriages, divorces, and kids too. And there will be ‘dolls’ – pills – the little green amphetamines to keep the weight off, and the red ones, initially to sleep – we all know where that goes.
The three girls are all different types. Anne is mostly too good to be true, and having the largest chunk of the novel, can be rather irritating. With stardom, Neely gets too demanding and the pills get to her, but her spirit is indomitable and for all her bad decisions, she’s a survivor. Jennifer, however is the sweetest, all the while just looking for someone to love and love her back. As for the men … I liked Henry very much. He’s the surrogate father figure who has given all to his job, and missed out on love for himself. Lyon is irresistible, but a bastard – I’d have fallen for him too, but ultimately all he’s interested in is himself.
Although this book shocked when it was published with its permissiveness (although probably a true enough reflection of showbiz relationships), reading it now doesn’t shock in the way that Peyton Place did when I read last year did. It was a little long-winded in places, but I did devour it and enjoyed it – an ideal summer read. It also reminds me that I ought to read Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives. (8/10)
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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Valley of the Dolls (Virago Modern Classics) by Jacqueline Susann
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins
The Stepford Wives: Introduction by Chuck Palanhiuk by Ira Levin.
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